Stories about life in Liddonfield housing project and its impact on the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Upper Holmesburg. These true stories reveal how government policy affected the lives of real people, from the project residents to area homeowners during the 5 decades of Liddonfield’s existence. Stories and articles are written by a former resident of the project.


Rosemary Reeves, Blogger, standing on Philadelphia Skyline

Aug 20, 2012

Part 5 of a Housing Project Kid's Story of Race in 1960s and 70s NE Phila

 If you missed the first 4 parts of this series click on the links below:

by Rosemary Reeves

When this black kid got on the Route 66 trolley in the far Northeast of Philadelphia in May of 1970 with his boom box radio, the music was kind of loud and that made the rest of the passengers, all of whom were white, uncomfortable.  The old man with plaid pants complained to the woman next to him.  The woman cast the black kid an admonishing look, but he paid her no mind, and things started getting even more tense.  If I were listening to Hendrix alone in my room I’d be dancing and singing along, but the screeching electric guitar sound only seemed to exacerbate the tension.  The old man quickly became agitated.  He leaned forward and called down the aisle.  “Hey, could you turn that radio down?”

The black kid was about sixteen, give or take a year.  He stared straight ahead, ignoring the request.  The old man repeated, “Hey, turn that down!”
This time the kid looked at him.  “I ain’t gotta do what you say, old man,” he answered, “This ain’t slavery days.  Power to the people.”  Hendrix defied the old man with his singing. 
I see you, heh, on down on the scene
Foxy You make me wanna get up and uh scream
Foxy Ah, baby listen now I've made up my mind
yeah I'm tired of wasting all my precious time
You've got to be all mine, all mine Foxy lady

The old man’s face turned red.  He was fuming.  He answered back, “You can take your power to the people crap and shove it!”

The black teenager called back down the aisle, “You can take your racist white regime and shove it!  Black power!”  Now, I was getting really scared.  I wished Sidney Poitier was on the Route 66 trolley with us.  Mr. Poitier would know what to do.

The old man became even angrier.  “Go back to north Philly, you punk!” he said, “We don’t want your kind here!”

The black teen responded, “What do you mean, my kind?”

The old man looked like he was ready to rumble.  “You know what I mean, punk!” 
The bus went over a pothole and made a jerking motion.  The roar of the trolley’s engine mixed with the electric guitar sound fueled the friction. 

The woman with the large purse intervened.  “Just turn the radio down!” she demanded.  The black kid ignored her and she turned to the trolley driver for help.  “Well,” she asked him, aren’t you going to do anything?”

All this time the trolley driver was silent.  I guess he didn’t want to get involved.  He was not, after all, a policeman.  He was just a guy trying to do a day’s work.  But things got too heated.  He pulled over to the next stop.  “Okay, buddy, time to get off,” he told the black teen.

The black kid stood and walked up to the driver.  “Not here,” he said, “The stop after this.”  Then he looked at the old white man he had been arguing with and added, “That’s where I get off, anyway,” just to let him know who was in charge.  The driver was clearly annoyed, but conceded to keep the peace.  He pulled away from the curb and proceeded to the next stop.  The black kid got off, still carrying his big boom box.  The old white man glared at him through the window as he stood on the sidewalk.  The teen raised his fist in the black power symbol and the bus roared on its way.

“Did you see that?” said the old man to the rest of the passengers, “That black kid had no respect!”

The woman with the large purse replied, “None of those coloreds do.”

A middle-aged woman with short brown hair nodded in agreement. “They’re moving into that Liddonfield project over there.”

“Bad news, that project,” said the large purse lady.    

And that’s how integration came to Upper Holmesburg, through Liddonfield Homes Public Housing Development.  This black kid who found himself in the whitest of white neighborhoods during a time of racial unrest must have seen a thousand eyes stare at him with loathing, the same way they looked at me and my family when we walked through the streets of Upper Holmesburg, living with little indignities day by day.  And who knows the names people called him, demeaning names they felt entitled to use and no one challenged.  I knew what it was like to be called names, words that felt like the “N” word to us, like white trash and hillbilly.   But we just accepted our second class status in the community because we were isolated and vulnerable.  It was different with him.  This kid had Jesse Jackson telling him he was somebody.  He had the words of Malcolm X to inspire him to stand up for himself.  He had the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense behind him.  He would be no sitting duck, no sir, as he made his way through the Lily White Northeast.  And so, he gave back what he was given, as one offense deserves another.   

I got off at the Holmesburg Library to do my weather homework and read a book about tornadoes.  I learned that when cold air from the north meets warm air from the south it creates a storm.  Topsoil and debris are sucked up into the high velocity winds, forming a funnel cloud.  The funnel cloud grows bigger and bigger as it travels, destroying everything in its path.  That’s how it was back then.  All this hatred was creating a storm and the funnel cloud was forming, looming over us all.

By August 1970, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense announced that it would have its Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention at Temple University in Philadelphia.  That's when panic set in.  People thought they were coming to start the race war.  Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo stepped forward in the climate of fear and said that he could lead us through these trials and tribulations, and it was rumored far and wide among the whites of northeast Philadelphia that only Rizzo could save our great city from the black revolutionaries.


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